Never heard of Johann Daniel Meyer? Neither had I until Michael Monthofer got in touch with me (1). He had “found a print showing canary birds from 1748” and had written “a little article” about it (2). He offered to send me a copy; you can guess my answer.
A PDF duly arrived and it was evident that Michael had made an exciting discovery. The print was entitled, in old German Gothic script, Zweyerley Vorstellung des Canarienvogels (Presentation of a pair of canary birds). It depicted a bizarre scene: two canaries perched on a branch of a cherry tree above a pair of skeletons (yes, skeletons!) in matching poses mounted on a classical plinth. That was not all; my eyes were drawn to the bird on the right. Could it be an early example of a Lizard canary?
The print had been produced by Johann Daniel Meyer for his Angenehmer und nützlichem Zeit-vertreib (A Pleasant and Useful Pastime), published in Nürnberg (Nuremberg) in 1748. It was a detailed study of 100 birds and animals and their skeletons. Meyer’s work had an academic purpose; most of his birds and animals are lifelike, and the skeletons are drawn with accuracy. His illustration of the canaries have to be taken seriously.
I have previously written about German canary birds in the seventeenth century (3), but had not taken their history any further because they appeared to have no connection with the Fine Spangled Sort. Michael’s article convinced me that I needed to learn more about Meyer. He kindly sent me a copy of Brigitte Klosterberg’s monograph on Meyer and his work; it was the perfect starting point.
Johan Daniel Meyer (1714-1757) was born in Langenzenn, near Nuremberg in northern Bavaria. At the age of twelve he was sent to the Nuremberg drawing school, followed by five years at the city’s painting academy and later spent a year touring Italy with Marcus Tuscher (4), before staying another a year in Rome.
The only known portrait of Meyer was painted by Tuscher in 1737 and engraved in copper by Meyer himself 15 years later. The original painting may have been inspired by a self-portrait by Francesco Trevisani, one of the leading artists of the period whose work they would have seen in Rome, and whom they probably met.
Meyer’s portrait adopts an almost identical pose, yet conveys a very different message.
Trevisani is wearing fur-trimmed and gold braided cap and jacket while he paints an aristocratic lady; it is intended to emphasise his social status (5). By contrast, Meyer is wearing a conventional artist’s cap and smock and is drawing a deer or an elk; he is standing next to a baroque urn and in the background we see part of a skeleton of the same animal (6). It is a proclamation of his artistic principles: Meyer’s art is dedicated to scholarship and scientific enquiry.
On returning to Nuremberg, Meyer specialised in portraits and animal miniatures up to 1748 when he established his reputation as an illustrator and engraver of natural history with the publication of Angenehmer und nützlichem Zeit-vertreib. The next eight years were busy times for Meyer. He not only published two more volumes of his great work, but also a reproduction of John Martyn’s Historia plantarum rariorum using printed colour plates, a major innovation at the time. (7)
Nuremberg was an important centre for printing; it possessed a network of artists, engravers, scientists and publishers eager to satisfy the demand for illustrated books on natural history. Even so, an illustrator like Meyer faced several challenges: he needed financial support because the books were time-consuming and expensive to produce; he was reliant on others to provide specimens of exotic birds and animals for him to draw; and he needed access to learned texts for his descriptions. Fortunately Meyer enjoyed the support of two men who could help him.
The first was Christop Jacob Trew (1695-1769) who was a passionate collector and had assembled one of the largest private collections of natural history in German-speaking countries during the 18th century. He was recognised internationally for his anatomical and botanical studies, and he supported artists who could illustrate his work with the accuracy he demanded.
The second was Georg Leonhard Huth (1705-1761), another student whom Trev sponsored, who later became a doctor and teacher at the Theatrum anatomicum in Nuremberg and translated natural history works from English, French and Dutch into German. It was Huth who provided the text to accompany Meyer’s illustrations.
Meyer’s great work, the Angenehmer und nützlichem Zeit-vertreib, was published in three volumes and covered a broad range of birds, animals, reptiles, fish and even monstrous creatures (8). It is an osteological study, meaning that it was as primarily concerned with an animal’s (or bird’s) skeleton rather than its physiognomy; each illustration features a living specimen together with its skeleton in a matching pose. Many skeletons were prepared by Meyer himself, others were drawn from specimens in Trew’s collection, but when necessary Meyer copied from an earlier source (9).
Osteology was a major interest of Trew’s (10) and Meyer ensured that his patron was not disappointed. For example, the skeleton of Die grauwe Eule (the tawny owl, Strix aluco) includes details of the sclerotic eye ring (a special bone possessed by birds and reptiles). In some birds, like Ein Auer Hahn (a Capercaille, Tetrao urogallus), the skeleton was drawn with far greater precision than the plumage. Others, like Ein Eis-Vogel (a kingfisher, Alcedo atthis) seem to achieve an equal precision in the illustration of the bird and its skeleton. Some skeletons, like the rider on horseback, are bizarre, while the skeleton of Die gemente Schlange (the grass snake, Natrix natrix) are drawn with an artist’s sensuality. You get the impression that Meyer enjoyed his work and was fully committed to it.
Click on the images in the gallery to see them at a larger scale.
The first volume, which includes plate XXXII (the engraving of the two canaries), was published in 1748. Each species was accompanied by a text. Volume two (1752) features another 100 species, although the text was reduced to 28 pages because collectors made it clear they were mainly interested in the illustrations. The third part was curtailed by Meyer’s death in 1757 and comprises only 40 species and 10 pages of text. Most of the skeletons disappeared too. A compendium of all three volumes was published in facsimile in 2013. (11)
Meyer deserves to be better known. His osteological studies were pioneering, and he follows Eleazar Albin, Mark Catesby and George Edwards as one of the more accomplished bird illustrators of the first half of the eighteenth century. Nevertheless, his engraving of the two canaries raises more questions than answers:
- Is the bird really a Lizard or its close relation?
- How did it come to be painted in Nuremberg rather than France or England, which have prior claims to be the birthplace of the breed; and
- Does it imply that the Lizard is actually of German origin?
I will take a closer look at the canaries in part 2.
General: My apologies to German readers but I will use Nuremberg, the English name for Nürnberg, in the course of these articles.
- Michael lives in Kiebitzreihe, a village near Hamburg. He has been a canary breeder since 1974 and acquired this first Lizard canaries from Gordon Plumb in 1978. His current interests are the Gibber Italicus and antiquarian books on canary culture.
- Der Lizard – begann seine Geschichte in Nürnberg? (The Lizard – did its history begin in Nuremberg?), Der Vogelfreund, 1/2019.
- See “History, part 7: German Birds”.
- Markus Tuscher (1705-51) was born in Nuremberg but spent much of his career as an artist and architect in Rome, London and Copenhagen.
- Trevisani is best known for his religious subjects; he enjoyed the patronage of cardinals and painted their portraits.
- It is part of the skeleton of a female elk (Cervus canadensis) that Meyer drew for plate XXX of Vol. 2.
- Historia plantarum rariorum by John Martyn (first printed in London, 1728) produced in Latin and German translation by Johann Daniel Meyer, Nuremberg, 1752. Meyer’s version was the first botanical work to feature printed colour plates. He copied and engraved the original plates using a form of mezzotint which enabled two or more colours to be applied at a single impression.
- The monstrous creatures, such as a calf with two heads and hares with antlers, appear in volume III. The demand for these illustrations was created by bizarre references in works such as the Locupletissimi rerum naturalium thesauri (Amsterdam 1734-1765) by the Amsterdam pharmacist and collector Albert Saba (1665- 1736).
- The engraving of the elephant skeleton, for example, was copied from Patrick Blair’s Osteographia Elephantina (London, 1711).
- Trew went on to publish Tabulae Osteologicae in 1767.
- ‘Angenehmer und nützlichem Zeit-vertreib’, Fines Mundi, 2013. A comprehensive facsimile, but it is impossible to reproduce how impressive Meyer’s original prints are.